After the old forum software breaking in a way that we were unable to fix, we've migrated the site to a new platform.

Some elements aren't working as we'd hoped - some avatars didn't survive the transition, and we're still having issues with attachments that weren't added as inline images, but we're hoping to have that all sorted out soon.

The Case for Bad Coffee by Keith Pandolfi

edited November 2015 in Social
I know if I share the link some will click, some won't... But I'm hoping the owners of this blog-post will allow this transcript copied as an acknowledgement of wonderful emotive writing and a celebration of the juxtaposition of why we are so fanatical.

The Case for Bad Coffee by Keith Pandolfi

Standing at my kitchen counter, I measure out two teaspoons of Maxwell House instant coffee into my favorite mug, pour in 12 ounces of hot water from a tea kettle, and stir for a moment. I look toward the automatic drip maker to my left and feel a pang of sympathy for its cold carafe that once gurgled and steamed each morning with the best coffee money could buy. On top of the refrigerator, my old friend the French press has gathered dust. When I notice a dead housefly decomposing inside it, I wonder what the hell has happened to me.

I wasn't always like this. I used to spend silly amounts of money on sturdy brown bags of whole-bean, single origin, locally roasted coffee at the gourmet market down the street. I would scowl after sipping an inadequately poured espresso shot pulled by an inexperienced barista if the taste was a little too bitter, the crema a little too thin. I waited fifteen minutes in the morning for a pour-over at a coffee house in my old neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. When I spent a semester in Italy during my senior year in college, I made sure to follow local customs—to never order a cappuccino after 10 a.m., to stand with confidence at the local cafe counter as I downed my umpteenth espresso of the day, perfectly paired with a rum-soaked baba or, in most cases, a cigarette.

For a time, coffee wasn't just my passion, it was my livelihood. In my 20s, I managed a coffee shop in a tony Cincinnati neighborhood where we played Yo La Tengo on the stereo in the morning and Miles Davis at night. When Starbucks came to town in the mid '90s, I signed on as an assistant manager, and remained in that position until I was 28 years old. I watched with little shame as my friends became lawyers and business owners, journalists and chemists. I was proud of the fact that I knew my ginger-bready Ethiopian Sidamos from my rummy Ethiopian Harrars. I knew that it took 19 seconds to pull the perfect espresso shot. For a while, I considered entering a Starbucks training program that would allow me to open a location of my own. I wanted coffee—really good coffee—to be my life.

But lately, something has changed. Lately, I've been reacting to fancy coffee the same way a child reacts to an accidental sip of red wine mistaken for grape juice. I don't know when it happened, but I've devolved into an unexpected love affair with bad coffee. It's not just instant coffee that I hanker for each morning, either, it's any subpar coffee I can get my hands on. (As I write this, I am a sipping a watery cup of java from an old pancake house down the street from my office in Little Italy.) Instead of that fancy market in my neighborhood, I've begun perusing the coffee aisle of my local Ideal Supermarket like I once did the cereal aisles of my youth. I'm delighted by the big, red jars of Folgers, the yellow Chock-full-o-Nuts, the sky blue cans of Maxwell House.

The worst part of this new-found obsession is that it isn't even an affectation. I don't drink cheap coffee to be different. I don't boast of my love for Cafe Bustelo, which has become the PBR of the bearded Brooklyn set. I usually buy Maxwell House. There is nothing cool about Maxwell House.

Maybe it all started a few months ago when I found myself paying $18 for a pound of what turned out to be so-so coffee beans from a new roaster in my neighborhood. It was one of those moments when I could actually imagine my cranky diner-coffee-swilling Irish grandfather rising from the grave and saying, "You know what, kid? You're an idiot."

It's more than just money, though. I'm as tired of waiting 15 minutes for my morning caffeine fix as I am waiting the same amount of time for my whiskey, Madeira, cardamom, and pimento bitters cocktail at my local bar. I am tired of pour-overs and French presses, Chemexes and Aeropresses. "How would you like that brewed?" is a question I never want to hear again.

But perhaps my newfound allegiance to the House of Maxwell is that I simply prefer it over the expensive stuff (which, don't get me wrong, I still occasionally enjoy). Cheap coffee is one of America's most unsung comfort foods. It's as warming and familiar as a homemade lasagna or a 6-hour stew. It tastes of midnight diners and Tom Waits songs; ice cream and cigarettes with a dash of Swiss Miss. It makes me remember the best cup of coffee I ever had. Even though there was never just one best cup: there were hundreds.

The best cup of coffee I ever had was the leftover swig of overly cream-and-sugared Taster's Choice my father would always leave in his mug when he departed for work each morning (I would come downstairs in my pajamas and down it like a shot when I was just nine years old). It was the Folgers my father and I drank out of Styrofoam cups five years later while attending his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in a church basement off a suburban commercial strip.

The best cup of coffee I ever had was the dirty Viennese blend my teenage friends and I would sip out of chipped ceramic mugs at a cafe near the University of Cincinnati while smoking clove cigarettes and listening to Sisters of Mercy Records, imagining what it would be like to be older than we were. The best cup of coffee was the one I enjoyed alone each morning during my freshman year at Ohio State, huddled in the back of a Rax restaurant reading the college paper and dealing with the onset of an anxiety disorder that would never quite be cured.

Then again, maybe the best cup of coffee I ever had was the one I drank in high school, right after my mother married a man named Ted.

Ted was short and portly and vulgar and gruff. Unlike my father, a dapper Italian and gifted home-cook who had a fondness for Strauss waltzes and old Platters records, Ted prefered polyester shirts, chain restaurants, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. He was a coffee and cigarettes kind of guy who liked to sit in window seats and watch the world go by. He grew up in a rough neighborhood, had an eighth-grade education, was a Korean War vet, and owned the largest blueprint company in Ohio. He wore a big gold bracelet with the word "Ted" spelled out in diamonds.

The two of us had nothing in common, but my mother would often send us out to pick up food for dinner at the local Perkins or Frisch's Big Boy. "Let's get a cup of coffee while we wait," he would always say with a sparkle in his eye as we arrived at our chain of choice. "We'll sit back and relax. Sure, just relax a little bit." But it was never just "a cup" of coffee—it was always three, and sometimes four. The idea of being stuck with Ted at booth or a counter stool made my head spin. We would be there for at least an hour as he talked about things I couldn't even pretend to understand—the blueprint industry, the stock market, the wisdom of the Republican party.

Ted drank his coffee black and I remember being self conscious as I peeled the lids off at least three plastic containers of half-and-half and stirred a second packet of Domino sugar into my mug. Eventually, though, I started to enjoy those little coffee sessions of ours. I learned that Blue Chip stocks were always a better bet; that you should pay for everything with cash; that Loretta Lynn's voice was the stuff of heaven; that George H.W. Bush wasn't as bad as he seemed.

Sitting at Ted's funeral a few years ago, I remembered the little phrases he would use every time we went out on those suburban hunting and gathering missions. When a waitress asked us how we were doing, his response was always, "If I was any better I'd be twins." His parting words to the cashier were always, "Take no wooden nickels and buy your own Cokes." After we buried him with full military honors, I honored him by going alone to one of the old Perkins we used to frequent and drank not one, but three cups of coffee.

I don't have memories of such bonding experiences taking place over a flat white at a Manhattan coffee shop or a $5 cup of nitro iced coffee at a Brooklyn cafe. High-end coffee doesn't usually lend itself to such moments. Instead, it's something to be fussed over and praised; you talk more about its origin and its roaster, its flavor notes and its brewing method than you talk to the person you're enjoying it with. Bad coffee is the stuff you make a full pot of on the weekends just in case some friends stop by. It's what you sip when you're alone at the mechanic's shop getting your oil change, thinking about where your life has taken you; what you nurse as you wait for a loved one to get through a tough surgery. It's the Sanka you share with an elderly great aunt while listening to her tell stories you've heard a thousand times before. Bad coffee is there for you. It is bottomless. It is perfect.

I found this on Serious Eats and thought you all might enjoy it:

Don't hesitate to comment below :thumb:


  • Well....nobody did yet, so I will. I have greatly enjoyed the read.
  • actually, here's another fairly interesting perspective on things: tasting notes
  • That's a good find A (as is Brett's find above). I am always reminded of the time when a very well known and capable green bean broker told me he was always amused at the things people like to find in coffee....his opinion being, if you could for example taste blueberries in coffee, in his opinion, that was a defect because coffee should taste! That certainly elevates the idea that simplification of a cuppers vocabulary is a good thing...and like it or not, there is room for all opinions  ;)
  • Great find A! Thank you for the comments FC and a great Anecdote!  I'm sure you've a book or two worth!
  • Just read both of these articles. The first one does illuminate some of the ridiculousness in cafe culture, especially the hipster scene. But I think a decaf cafe is even more ridiculous. It's probably ok as a small time alternative for a late night coffee tasting beverage or for those who can't handle caffeine, but that's about it. The caffeine in in coffee is one of its essential virtues so removing it wholesale and mass marketing it would make no sense and certainly wouldn't help the plight of growers around the world. We're better off as a society to accept that coffee is grossly underpriced, be happy to pay more for higher quality products and then find a completely different alternative for caffeine free beverages. The 2nd article was very well written and makes a lot of sense. I've never worried to much about tasting notes or the fact that I never seem to be able to taste the same things in drinks, or even be able to express what I can taste. But having it explained in this way by an actual taster makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing guys.
  • Hi there, your comments follow along the lines of my own sentiments but as someone that works professionally in coffee, I didnt want to lead the discussion in any particular direction before any one else replied. I have often admitted, that when standing on a windy frigid sports oval at 7.30 am in winter with your children, it is always appropriate to donate a gold coin to the fund raisers purveying an instant coffee in a foam cup because it does "hit the spot" all depends on what may be appropriate at any particular time, and admitting to the truth instead of fooling around with silly  affectations, can be refreshing. For the rest of it my own personal approach to coffee drinking in general or cupping professionally, is to approach each cup with a completely open mind and see what it tells me once its in my mouth. I only look for simple elements such as sweet or sour; ashy/bitter, or not; good acidity or bad; well balanced with good body, or not; overall, is it a pleasant experience or not. Any more than that is unnecessary, in my opinion.....and in terms of our well developed espresso based market and that atleast 90% if not 95% of all coffees sold are milked, it really only comes down to whether it is pleasant or not, sweet or bitter, too milky, or too strong (ie is it well balanced). This directly affects the "degree of acceptability" of any coffee sold/bought/ingested, and that is all any professional coffee roaster/merchant is interested in, once his cafe clients have for better or worse.....remanufactured his original raw material into the end product they are purveying to their clients. Stating the obvious, there are (atleast) 2 sides to coffee cupping. One would be the technical side of cupping for cupping's sake (whether pro or amateur), and the other is cupping what is presented to (or made by) any particular person out in the real world. And to tie it back to the blueberry example....this is not to say that you cant or shouldnt detect other characteristics such as tones/notes of blueberry in some coffees, just that the coffee itself has to stand on its own as a coffee for the purpose for which it is to be used.
  • YES!!! I was at a Snobs gathering some years ago and some Bari-star had created a blend that was like hot lemon in a cup!  Brilliant they all said but all I could think was how much cheaper and less time-consuming it would be to just squeeze lemons.... I as the simpleton in the group went along to drink coffee :/
  • Ironic timing. Yesterday I found myself in a well regarded and respected Melbourne establishment using perhaps Australia's most well-known specialty coffee brand - although that statement in itself is starting to appear ridiculous and is really become redundant (who really cares about hype and hysteria anyway). It's always good to be the simple, unassuming cafe customer who is just trying to grab a quick lunch and some coffees. At least, that's how I always start out such experiences - keeping it under the radar. Although, as hard as I might try, it's physically, mentally and emotionally impossible for me to take off the coffee judge hat when it's another coffee on the table in front of me. I challenge anyone with an interest in coffee to consume without prejudice - even the slightest bias. Despite not really having the time to properly indulge, I did the usual simple routine of ordering a shorty, a piccolo and a latte. At midday it was literally the calm before the storm and almost empty, so there was plenty of scope for the team of barista's to weave their magic and I peered across from a distance to see them double-checking my order.....3x coffees for 1x person........was that a raised eyebrow I just spied ? The latte (house) was first up and failed to match any of the notes printed on the wall above - all I could detect was pepper and spice with a hint of malt. Being no spice expert, I just got an un-explainable caramel, sweetness, chocolate or soft raisins that was promised above in heavy white chalk. The piccolo was one of the 3 SO's they had available - a Colombian. Advertised with elaborate notes..........all I got was that damn un-explainable spice again..........didn't see the barista in action, so don't know what they did, but it was pretty much the same as the latte except less milky and more intense (ratios). Could swear they were the same coffee. Finally, my anticipated shorty.........a Kenyan. Listed with detailed notes according to the little coffee booklet available on the table in front of me (which I always enjoy)...........but all I got was a very acidic black-currant.......unfortunately, not able to finish that shot I'm tongue was zinging so much that I reached for the yummo sparkling water that came complimentary with the shorty and washed it down with the remnants of the latte to soften my mouth....... By now, both baristas were looking at me having half-tasted all 3 coffees and it was not busy so one of them wandered over and asked if the coffees were OK.......good points for service. I nodded with a simple .......yes thanks. Thought about this matching challenge all the way back to the office during a 1hr drive.......was it a failure in the roast side........or the brew execution side.  Was it my fault because I don't know any better as a spice novice or was the whole exercise just total nonsense because the descriptions for each of the coffees were produced at a time well prior to yesterday by an alternative roast profile suitable for cupping versus espresso. Or, is the razor-edge intensity of espresso the sledgehammer that smashed the notes to pieces....dulling and dumbing everything down to a minimalist syrup......or was I just being a twat  deliberately sabotaging the situation by not ordering filter brews ? Did I have a bad coffee........or did my expectations fail to be realized...........probably not bad coffee by general standards.......but certainly an expectation gap prevailed and I arrived at the conclusion that the coffee universe is not perfect and everyone has an average day on the tools.....roasters, baristas and customers.
  • Mate, this is the best thing I've read in ages.  thank you for an excellent post.  This resonates with me and my all too-common experience.  Coupled with the arrogance that is so often associated with the 'top end' I often feel as though I am just nodding and agreeing and yet seemingly missing point of the exercise.  Thank you for dispelling the myth!
  • Thanks Brett. The key myth in the world of high-end espresso is simply this. 1. Nothing is stable across any decent range of time. 2. Consistency is impossible because at any particular time equipment let's the team down, people let the team down and the coffee let's the team down - it's a tag-team of chasing your tail. 3. The best equipment suffers deviations under heavy workloads. One of the best cafes IMO operating in the CBD (just a touch of bias on my behalf) runs through grinders like you wouldn't believe - what happens to them you might ask ????......they shift mid-service during peak times or all sorts of variations occurs as they heat up under workload. We have even seen the burrs shifting on the shaft. I've never taken one of these apart, but I believe they are pressed on, not keyed. Even the LM's don't like being hit hard every day.......14 month old machines now experiencing random leaking from multiple groups simultaneously when it's busy and techs scratching their heads.......which of course causes means you are setting up the next shot for channeling as the loaded group about to be used has had a dose of water sitting in the top of the puck. That was after the new Synesso was giving problems for 4 months......and swapped out for an LM. So, you see how can these top guns really pull amazing shots all of the time when their gear is throwing wobbles under load. Yes, they can make an amazing shot.......but doing it all day every day is expecting a bit much and there lies the story of the harsh critic who has a trigger happy finger that unconsciously jumps on any defect and as luck would have it they happen to stumble across one of these "80 percentiles" which may be totally acceptable to the general coffee drinking public but is somehow missing that last 20% to make it amazing and rock the socks off the is eminently possible........but not every time.
  • Jeff it all sounds completely and utterly sensible when you state the facts as you have!  I understand, as I'm sure we all do that brand snobbery and mystic needs to be built into any marketing platform but as an amateur I can't imagine the stress of having to live up to the hype.  Especially when the tools of the trade are seemingly only as human as their operaotrs complete with idiosyncrasies and Mondayitis?? Thanks again for shining a light into the dark-arts!
  • Stop being so logical and sensible you guys, you'll ruin it for everyone. ;)
  • on 1446933539:
    Stop being so logical and sensible you guys, you'll ruin it for everyone. ;)
    Lol!  :thumb:
Sign In or Register to comment.

Coffee Forum

@ 2024 The Coffee Forum, All rights reserved.